Tag Archives: performance art

#64 – Fairground

24 Nov

Fairground (Freaks, 1987)
Fairground at Pulpwiki

“The other reason we called it ‘Freaks’ was because we always get called freaks, the escape party from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, stuff like that. When we play live, everybody dwells on the fact that I’m thin with specs, Russell looks like Count Dracula, Candida although she’s 23 looks 14, while Pete looks like a football hooligan. We were always getting called freaks so we thought let’s call the LP ‘Freaks’ just to… put two fingers up.” – Jarvis Cocker, Sounds, 27th June 1987

Are you normal or are you weird? It’s a question we’ve all had to answer at one time, usually in high school. And then you have to decide whether you’re one or the other. Sometimes it’s easier just to go with the flow – being a freak is, in a way, a liberating experience. You can do whatever you like and people will pay attention to you. Take this to its logical extreme and eventually you’re a sideshow attraction. Come and see the freak, kids! This could’ve been you if you’d been unlucky / lucky / clever / stupid / different. Of course, if you’re just trying to be yourself (that being the normal state of things) then this can all be a bit too much to take.

‘Fairground’, the opening track on Freaks, presents the group as a particularly unpleasant carnival sideshow act. It’s not exactly an easy listen. Every note, from the woozy fairground organ to the distorted screaming and the way it keeps shifting into unexpected keys seems to be designed to make this listener confused and uncomfortable. Russell’s intention was always to weed out the more casual or conservative listeners, and he must have been successful here. Despite the poor quality of the recording, this cacophony is intentional, and had been planned for years.

That isn’t to say that the recording session was a success. ‘Freaks’ is the very definition of a poorly produced album. The limited time and resources availiable meant that moreorless everything was a rough first take, and no song suffered more than Fairground. The night after the recording Jarvis lay in bed groaning with embarrasment at the memory of his studio-improvised ‘carny’ announcements in the instrumental section and swore he would remove them the next day.* Arriving back at the recording studio they found that the masters had already been wiped. The unsatisfactory rough mix was to be the only version recorded.

So far, so bad then. But Fairground is actually very successful in acheiving what the group set out to do – whether that corresponds to anyone’s idea of ‘good music’ or not. Russell’s monologue alone is magnificently theatrical and creepy, a song-length summary of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. The narrator keeps switching between a demented ringmaster and a bewildered spectator, taking a tour around a selection of fairground oddities**, but the astonishing thing is that nothing actually happens – nothing worse than being subjected to ridicule at least. Yet there’s an overwhelming sense of “something wrong here.”

The evil circus trope is one we’re all familiar with, and its signifiers sound obvious enough to make it into a particularly specialised sub-genre. Waltz time, a fairground organ playing simple scales, slightly out of tune, evil laughter. So when I set out to make a mix of the best of this music I was surprised at how few musicians could carry it off without sounding corny and fake. Nox Arcana were particularly disappointing. The best of what I could find is gathered on this podcast. Listen to it at your own risk (of being mildly irritated).

* His vocals are actually fairly good. You’d have thought they’d have been embarrassed about a few other things though.
** Are the “three identical sisters” a reference to Artery’s ‘Into The Garden’? It certainly seems possible.

#51 – The Will To Power

25 Aug

The Will To Power
The Will To Power at Pulpwiki

Russell Senior looked a bit like Hitler. Sure, he didn’t have the moustache, but the hair, the seriousness and the thousand yard stare were enough. Always the most politically active member of the group (and a flying picket during the miners’ strike of 1984) his views were at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Nazis, though a popular idea holds that politics can be described more as a circle than a straight line. Certainly his taste in philosophy and fetishisation of revolution had more in common with the extreme right than they did with the “SDP mood” of the era.

The lyrics of TWTP are deliberately provocative to an extent which is hard to justify. A popular story, reported as fact in Martin Aston’s book, says that the song had to be dropped from the band’s set after it attracted a skinhead following, but this is most likely to be either a joke or a massive exaggeration on Russell’s part – especially as it sounds suspiciously like a near-identical story about Cabaret Voltaire and their early track “Do The Mussolini (Headkick)”.

This is illustrative of a general lack of sincere description of the song and its purpose. Every quote available does more to obscure the meaning than clarify it – Russell’s description of TWTP as “a real commie anthem dedicated to Arthur Scargill and Nelson Mandela and the IRA” is particularly disingenuous – you’d be hard pressed to find any communist who’d feel the song was for them. This muddled message perhaps betrays a confusion at the core of the lyric. One vital fact missing from statements about the song (but which becomes self-evident when reading the lyric) is that it’s a character piece with a well-drawn protagonist. A confused, bitter small-town Nietzsche fan’s fear of powerlessness leads him to a pathetic desire for fascistic strength of mind and the gratification that comes with the release of physical violence. The more impotent he feels, the more angry he becomes with the world, until at the end he’s blubbing about ‘truth and beauty’. It could be funny if it wasn’t played so straight – and this is where explanations start to break down. Russell’s vocal sounds so utterly sincere that it’s hard not to take him at his word – and this tallies with one particular, seemingly meaninglessly provocative description of the song.

“I’d been reading about Germany at that time and the class conflict. I liked that atmosphere but obviously not from the point of view of being a Nazi. A lot of Left Wing statements are too wishy-washy, too nice. I like the sharpness of the Moseleyite addresses. They were on the wrong side but they were better organised.”

The secret to the success of The Will To Power is all in the performance and the production. A post-punk beat poem, it’s driven along by mournful guitar licks. Russell becomes more hysterical, fanatical as the track progresses – at one point his voice suddenly sounds so furious he could be an angry dalek – and the music follows suit soon after, breaking into a violent marching thrash. Vocal whips up backing, backing eggs on vocal, both becoming increasingly desperate, and finally breaking into exhausted, resigned but still angry defeat. It’s a tough trick to pull off, and live and demo versions are let down by a lack of focus. On the finished version from the “Little Girl” EP, however, the production is spot-on, with what’s almost certainly Russell’s best vocal of all time, guitars that sound sad and angry in the right places, and a runaway energy powerful enough to be genuinely frightening.

Nobody would consider ‘The Will To Power’ as a good introduction to Pulp, but perhaps they should. For all its confusion it’s a fascinating, complex piece of work, a hymn to sincerity and a bleak warning of its power at the same time.

#49 – Anorexic Beauty

11 Aug

Anorexic Beauty (Freaks, 1987)
Anorexic Beauty (Live, 1985, Fascinations Nitespot, Chesterfield – Video)
Anorexic Beauty (Ping Pong Jerry Demo, Nov 1984)
Anorexic Beauty at Pulpwiki

Eight unusual things about Anorexic Beauty by Pulp

1. It wasn’t originally a Pulp song. Written by David Kurley of early-Pulp contemporaries New Model Soldier, it was sold to Russell for £1 after a gig. The song dates back to an earlier David Kurley band, Blimp, who featured a young Magnus Doyle on drums. New Model Soldier were an interesting enough group in their own right – a few of their recordings can be heard here. The song was extensively re-worked by Pulp, but the lyrics survive intact.

2. Kurley’s lyrics could easily be from a post-modern treatise on desire and repulsion. I mean that in a good way – for a pop song it demonstrates an unusal level of forethought. Of course, on the other hand, we lack any insight into the author’s real feelings, but frankly, who cares? Situationist posturing about commodification, objectivisation and alienation is such a rarity in pop music. If it was presented in a po-faced manner (or used impenetrable language like “situationist posturing about commodification, objectivisation and alienation”) this might be a problem, but fortunately it’s witty, blunt and accessible enough to work.

3. Russell is singing – not a unique occurence, but he’s actually singing here rather than just making a speech with ominous backing music. In earlier versions of the song Jarvis would sing in tandem with Russell, but on the LP version his vocal has been mixed far down enough that you wouldn’t notice it unless you were really paying attention.

4. Jarvis is playing the drums, not with a great deal of precision, but considering he wasn’t a drummer the effect isn’t as bad as it might’ve been. The song doesn’t require him to do anything beyond a simple two-handed smash every second, so it probably didn’t require lessons.

5. Magnus is playing the guitar – again, not with a huge amount of finesse, but this isn’t exactly a delicate musicianly piece, and anyone who’s been in as many bands as he had would surely have picked up a few chords. Later on in the Pulp story another drummer trying out a guitar bit would create something rather special.

6. It’s not really about Lena Zavaroni. A child star of the 70s, she had her own TV variety show between 1979 and 1981. Her condition wouldn’t become public until the mid-80s, when the song was already five years old. Presumably it was dedicated to her on the sleeve of ‘Freaks’ because she was in the news at the time. In hindsight this seems rather cruel – Lena wasn’t a model, and she died in 1999 while in hospital waiting for experimental brain surgery, her last years spent on a council estate, living on state benefits.

7. Most unlikely fact of all, perhaps; this postmodern sex & death thrash somehow functions as a bit of light relief on ‘Freaks’. Reviewing the LP for Sounds magazine “Mr Spencer” remarked that “this presumably is Pulp’s idea of a ‘fun’ song.” – and while that may not strictly be the case, it’s certainly a lot more enjoyable to listen to than “Life Must Be So Wonderful” or “The Never-Ending Story.”

8. In the quarter-century since the song was recorded, it seems to have become popular with the online ‘pro-ana’ crowd. See this video, this website or this one or this one. On each (particularly the video) there is a debate raging over whether the song is a celebration of anorexia or a condemnation of it. In truth the lyrics don’t engage with this debate in either direction – David Kurley’s interest being more in performance art and philosophy than actually writing about an ‘issue’ – but it’s fascinating to find out how complex and multidimensional the disease is in the minds of sufferers, and how many of them are willing to use dark humour to discuss it.

#45 – Coy Mistress

14 Jul

Coy Mistress
Coy Mistress at Pulpwiki

In January 1984 five men entered Vibrasound Studios in Sheffield. Were they a band, or an experimental theatre company? Judging by their recent performance history, it would perhaps be safe to assume the latter. ‘Pulp’ had petered out over the summer, and nothing they’d done since then could be described as a “gig.” Of the four songs recorded that day, two remain unreleased and uncirculated, one is a rough but effective demo of ‘I Want You‘ and the final track, well, it’s ‘Coy Mistress’

Falling firmly on the ‘performance art’ side of the identity crisis divide, ‘Coy Mistress’ features one minute and twenty-six seconds of Russell loudly, menacingly proclaiming a half-remembered bastardisation of Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’. The 46 lines of the original are reduced to 11, though the essence of the piece seems undamaged – in fact, the lecherousness of the original is enhanced by the replacement of “but thirty thousand to the rest” with the sly, mischievous intonation of “and a considerably longer amount for all the rest.” Elsewhere time’s winged chariot is imbued with a “long skanky finger” which goes “smack, smack, smack.” Not a reverential reading then, but one suited for the theatre.

Behind Russell, Jarvis plays ominously on a church organ, while Magnus tinkles around on a xylophone. At two points in the track Magnus also throws in thunderous cymbal-rolls, presumably to disconcert any listeners who are somehow relaxing or not paying attention.

If it were a full-length track, or if it were anything other than a one-off, there’s every chance that ‘Coy Mistress’ would become tedious. As a stand-alone piece, however, it entertains and amuses without overstaying its welcome. Pulp never gave it a proper release, putting it out only on two obscure tape compilations, each time marking the beginning or end of a side, and each time accompanied by another, more sensible sample of the band’s work.

The Fruits Of Passion

30 Jun

“We’d made this gentle, polite LP, so I thought, ‘Fuck off, let’s go to the other extreme.’ – JC

So much for Pulp prehistory. September 1983 was year zero. For a group that had reinvented themselves so much and been through so many members, making a break with the past was old hat by this point. Nothing short of a severance was required, a total negation of everything they’d been before. That negation came along in the form of Russell Senior.

Russell isn’t new to our story – he’d known the band since the early days, had interviewed them for his fanzine and organised concerts. More distant friends of the band had tended to drift in and out of the line-up, but Russell had been studying, bizarrely, business administration at Bath University, and had to be content with carrying out his musical experimentations down among the boureois residents of Tears For Fears’ hometown. As soon as he’d graduated he returned to his own hometown, and with a few months had joined Pulp rehearsals – not as another muso in the mix, but on an equal footing with Jarvis. Strangely enough, his arrival co-incided with the departure of half of the band. Simon Hinkler had been on his way out anyway – other musical projects were competing for his time – and David and Peter soon followed suit when they saw the direction the band was taking. Both accomplished musicians, their dislike of Russell’s untrained avant-garde noisemaking was inevitable. Interviewed later for ‘Truth & Beauty’ David later said that “anyone who had a guitar that didn’t have all six strings wasn’t someone I wanted to work with.”

So that left Jarvis, Russell, Tim and Magnus; not really a band, yet, more a group of friends with a shared interest in breaching artistic boundaries, in one form or other. The first project they started was a theatre group called ‘The Wicker Players’, assembled from the remnants of the band and whoever else would join in in order to perform Russell’s dadaist agit-prop opus “The Fruits Of Passion” at various venues around Sheffield.

The play opened with the direction to “Put vacuum cleaner on stage. Switch it on. Leave it on until audience become restless.” Audience tolerance was further tested with absurdist vignettes featuring characters like First Authoritarian and Second Authoritarian (“There’s no difference” – Russell) interspersed with early versions of some of the more abrasive songs they’d been working on. Finally the performace would reach a climax with a scene featuring Jarvis eating a plate of shit at a job interview. On the final performance, at The Crucible Theatre, Russell changed the recipe for the ‘shit’ without telling Jarvis and smiled enigmatically at Jarvis from the wings – though it was only chocolate and peanut butter.

Unsurprisingly, a fair amount of audience members would leave at one point or another during each performance. Those who stayed, however, had proved themselves to be of the same mettle as the new group, a more selective fanbase to build on as they embarked on one of their oddest eras. Though Pulp would move on from the avant-garde after a few years, a part of them belongs there permanantly, as shown by their confrontational choice of Minty as a support act during the UK tour in October 1995.

The Wicker Players put on a few more performances, including an infamous Christmas pantomime at the Hallamshire Hotel and ‘Cabarets’ where Magnus displayed his baked-bean-vomiting and on-stage-wanking skills. By the end of the year, though, they were starting to coalesce into a proper band again, and since everyone knew the name Pulp, there was no reason not to use it again.